The Killers are staying alive
As far as problems go, it’s a nice one to have, but the Killers do have a dilemma on their hands. The Las Vegas–based quartet is so stoked about its new album, Battle Born, that it’s having difficulty figuring out which songs not to play on its current tour. Frontman Brandon Flowers tells the Straight that he and his bandmates—guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer, and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr.—have had to resist the temptation to play Battle Born in its entirety.
“You know the songs—you wrote the songs—but when you’re rehearsing and you’re getting ready for the tour you kind of have to relearn everything,” Flowers says, reached in Birmingham, England, on All Saints’ Day. “We’ve never, as a band, I don’t think, had so much fun playing an album. And so we were like, ‘Let’s just play this thing.’ It’s proven to be difficult. People are there to hear songs that they’ve already grown attached to from the past, and we don’t want to withhold those from people, so we’ve just got to try to find a nice balance. And we’re still working that out. We’ve been playing 10 or 11 new songs a night, and I think we’re gonna knock it down to nine tonight; maybe eight or seven later on.”
At this point in their career, with three previous LPs under their collective belt, the Killers have no shortage of material from which to put together a suitably deadly set list. Long-time fans needn’t worry that Flowers and company will give short shrift to monster singles like “Somebody Told Me”, “Human”, and “When We Were Young”.
“We don’t mind doing that,” Flowers says of running through the obligatory hits. “It always baffles me when bands withhold those songs. But we’re proud of them. We’re thankful that people are there. Give ’em what they want.”
One of the things they want without fail, night after night, city after city, is to sing along to “Mr. Brightside”. Released in 2004, the dance-punk-tinged fist-pumper was the Killers’ recorded debut, and it remains one of the group’s most popular songs. Flowers can’t count the number of times he’s had to sing it, but he’s not complaining.
“We’ve never not played that one, so it’s been played a couple thousand times,” he says. “I don’t get tired of it, though. That one’s taken on such a life of its own now that I don’t even know that I’m needed. As soon as Dave starts that guitar line, it’s on its way. People are just going. It’s fun every night.”
Battle Born might not contain quite as many moments of cathartic, workday-obliterating indie-rock swagger as the Killers’ first album, 2004’s Hot Fuss, but those don’t seem to be the band’s raison d’être anymore. The new record is the work of a maturing act, whose youthful fire, while not quite quenched, is now tempered by the uncertainty and ambivalence that go along with growing up. The leadoff single, “Runaways”, is a rousing, Springsteen-esque anthem aimed at the cheap seats. Flowers sings from the perspective of a husband and father who desperately seeks contentment in domesticity but can’t silence the voice in his head that keeps telling him it’s all just a gilded cage: “At night I come home after they go to sleep/Like a stumbling ghost, I haunt these halls/There’s a picture of us on our wedding day/I recognize the girl but I can’t settle in these walls.”
“Runaways” is a devastating snapshot of a marriage held together by an ever-fraying thread, but Flowers says it seems as though many listeners don’t pick up on that. “People just say, ‘Oh, this is the guy who wrote “Somebody Told Me”, so this is just a sappy love song.’ The first line is ‘Blonde hair blowin’ in the summer wind,’ and they just zone out after that. Like I’m not allowed to grow up and express myself. But I did, and it’s happening whether people like it or not.
“We knew that it was a little bit of dangerous territory to come out and have that be the face of the record,” the singer continues, “and it’s not your quintessential song that you hear on the radio. Even structurally it’s not. But we’re really proud of it, and I’m thankful for it every night, now that we’re playing it. It’s got a weight to it, but it’s also breezy at the same time.”
With its soaring melodies, “Runaways” showcases Flowers’s growing vocal prowess. From the way the 31-year-old powers through the choruses, it’s evident that the voice lessons he took before hitting the studio to record Battle Born were a worthwhile investment. It’s not just the frontman’s lead singing that stands out, however. The gorgeously layered backing vocals on “Flesh and Bone” and the title track might bring Queen to mind, but Flowers reveals that he drew inspiration from a more unlikely source: Eric Carmen. Not the tunesmith’s MOR ballads (“All By Myself”, “Make Me Lose Control”), mind you, but one particular song by his early ’70s power-pop outfit the Raspberries.
“Those vocals came sort of by accident,” Flowers notes. “We were finishing the record and we got a call from Tim Burton to do a cover for the end of Dark Shadows. The movie was done, and they were really needing some help. I don’t know why they didn’t just use the original. So we had to learn this song by the Raspberries called ‘Go All the Way’—I had never heard it before—and record it. We had about two days to do it. There are these amazing vocal arrangements in that song, and it’s an awesome song. The same guy [Carmen] wrote ‘Hungry Eyes’ in the ’80s, and he had a couple of huge ballads. If you listen to that song I guess you’ll see what I’m saying. It’s just got these amazing vocal arrangements. I was just finishing up that ‘Battle Born’ song and I tested out some of the new stuff I learned, I guess. And it worked out, so it’s a real highlight for the record. We’re worried, because it’s the last song on the record and, you know, people don’t buy albums anymore. So we’re hoping that, because it’s at least the title track, people will listen to that one.”
In spite of Flowers’s misgivings, Battle Born has indeed been selling. It did well enough when it was released in September to debut at number three on the Billboard album chart. It likewise debuted at number three in Canada, and at number one in the U.K. and Ireland. But the frontman makes a valid point. The Killers have been around for just over a decade, which is long enough to witness a fundamental change in the music business. When Hot Fuss came out, CD sales had yet to decline into the monumental slump of the past few years. For better or worse, up-and-coming new acts are having to find different ways of getting their sounds out to the world, and not many of them are getting rich doing so.
Could the Killers, then, be the last big mainstream band?
“I don’t know,” admits Flowers. “I hope not. There haven’t been many since we’ve come out that have done it. Well, Mumford & Sons seem like they’re on their way to doing it. They’re pretty much the only ones post-2004. It’s bound to happen, though. Somebody’s going to have talent, and love rock and melody, and write a good song. It’s going to happen. But it’s gonna be harder for them than it was for us. And it was harder for us than it was for bands in the ’90s or the ’80s.”
True enough. The Killers spent their share of time in the indie trenches; they initially signed to British label Lizard King Records, whose current roster includes no one you’ve ever heard of. They’ve also weathered the shifting tides of the industry while never finding much favour with snobbish critics. Reviewing the band’s 2008 LP Day & Age, Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal suggested that Flowers was “a weirdo trying to please himself and his audience at the same time but constantly coming up a little short on at least half of that equation”. Flowers, a Mormon, has even had his rock ’n’ roll credentials called into question thanks to his abstinence from booze and drugs. And yet these four men constitute one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.
Battle born, indeed.
The Killers play the Pacific Coliseum on Monday (December 3).